Zero Drop Shoes For Hiking
You might be wondering what the heck is a zero drop shoe for hiking. If you’ve spent any time hiking you’ve probably seen Altra’s or Hoka’s on the feet of hikers. It’s no wonder that hikers gravitate toward these style of shoes. Typically, zero drop shoes offer loads of cushion for feet and may come in nice wide toe boxes to let your toes move more naturally. Here’s what you may not know: they are not for everyone! Let’s take a look at why zero drop shoes aren’t for every hiker.
What is a zero drop shoe?
A zero drop shoe has no change or very minimal change in height in the sole of the shoe from the toe box to the heel. Think Chuck Taylors or Vans for reference – there is no elevated heel from a thicker sole in the back of the shoe.
Brands like Altra and Hoka use a maxi-minimalist approach. This means that they max out the sole thickness but retain the zero drop from heel to toe. It’s maximal thickness in the sole but minimal its approach to heel rise. This minimal heel rise allows the foot to move naturally almost as if walking barefoot, albeit on a thick bed of cushioning in the sole. Natural foot motion is desired but comes with cost for some of us.
What makes zero drop shoes for hiking great?
Who could complain about abundant toe room in a shoe? It is truly grand to wear Altra’s and have your toes not mashed together while hiking. And that thick cushioned sole, it’s like walking on a cloud! A hiker I met from Europe said that the shoes Americans hike in were more like trail slippers than proper foot wear. He wasn’t wrong. The Pacific Crest Trail is mostly a gentle tread where these types of shoes can shine. They are comfortable, popular and available without too much trouble in most trail towns.
Edit: The toe box size is great for letting the toes splay naturally, a huge benefit over a tighter toe box for a number of reasons (blisters, bunions, hammertoes…) The zero drop part can be great for some since it does allow for a more “natural” foot motion and body alignment as there is no raised heel.
The problem with zero drop shoes
In theory, a zero rise would be better for body alignment, however, often these shoes offer next to no arch support. This negates any possible benefit since you’re loosing alignment when your foot collapses – this leads to foot, knee, hip, and low back problems. This can also lead to IT band issues too.
As the foot tires, over pronation (flattening of the foot) increases. Even if you had good Achilles length you might still need arch support if your feet aren’t good and strong.
Hikers may gravitate towards these shoes due to the thick sole thinking that it will provide better cushion on long hiking days, and for some it may. For others it may be the thing that continues to offer up calf pain, Achilles pain and other issues.
If you traditionally wear a thicker heel shoe like most brands and styles of tennis shoes, you’ll see that the heel is higher than the toe box. You’ve probably been wearing them for years and they just seem like normal shoes to you. With years of wearing this style of shoe, your Achilles tendon may shorten. Here is where the problem occurs.
Your Achilles may be used that adapted shortened position. When you slip on a pair of low rise shoes, your Achilles is now being asked to lengthen because that heel height is no longer there. Granted, this may be millimeters or more but that matters to the body. Even if you think it doesn’t.
You can’t ask a chronically short tissue to lengthen over night and happy about it. This elongation process varies by the person but may take 3-6 months to adapt. You must be patient and break in your body to this newly lowered heel height.
Next steps for zero drop shoes
Truthfully, you aren’t barefoot enough hours of the day to do any good lengthening your tendon. You’ll have to gradually work on elongating that strong, thick tendon. The Achilles can and will lengthen but it takes time. Start by going barefoot more often around the house and yard. Put on your low rise shoes and taking short walks gradually increasing the distance over time.
Don’t fight the process. If you are experiencing pain in the calf or around the ankle regardless of the time and effort, zero drop shoes for hiking just may not be for you. They aren’t for everyone and that’s ok; there is not reason to fit your body on this. You may need a more supportive shoe due to your arches, foot strength, foot shape or other reasons.
Remember, just because something is popular for many hikers doesn’t mean you need the same “thing” to be successful. Do what works for you!